He turned into our driveway in a dinged Mazda pickup with power washing equipment in the bed. There was a pump attached to an upright heat exchanger tank, a black hose rolled up onto a yellow reel, and a cluster of spray wands bundled together like Roman fasces with a length of clothesline. “Victory in Space” was stenciled in white block letters on both blue doors. When I asked him about that, he said he had let his son name the business as a birthday present.
“How old is your son?” I asked
That threw me. I assumed that his son must be suffering from a severe developmental condition. He noticed my confusion.
“We’re talking about his eighth birthday,” he said. “He just got his ME from Cooper Union and an entry position with the Port Authority. He got Victory from Victor. That’s me.”
I laughed. Laughter is what I resorted to then, when my mind made stupendous leaps over the obvious possibilities before me. That, I was told by Brother Salerno, was critical. As long as you can join in on the amusement when life plays tricks on you, he said, you’re okay, or at least still on the right side of dotage. Seemed sensible. So I laughed a lot, with a force and bluster that bounced off the ceilings and walls of the hundred year-old white craftsman house with forest green shutters the four of us lived in. Four seemed to be the minimum number of inhabitants needed to keep the diocese from selling the house and farming us out to assisted living.
Salerno managed the few domestic business matters the diocese couldn’t be bothered with. Not quite seventy, he was also the youngest of our coven of four, and the sharpest. He was away when Victor of Victory in Space arrived, in Conshohocken visiting his sister Allison, who had broken her wrist in bathtub fall. I was next in command, so to speak. Salerno had told me nothing about a power washing. But of course it was also possible that he had and also possible that he had handed that information to me on a slip of paper that was posted under a magnet on the refrigerator door.
I quickly lost my way in these crisscrossing matters.
“It’s a freebee,” Victor said.
“Somebody called in and paid up front to power wash your house. He said he was an old student.”
“That he didn’t tell me.”
“I don’t think we’ve ever had a power washing,” I said. “I’m afraid it might knock the siding right off.”
He was dismissive. “I’ve done older houses. Never happened.”
As retired men of the cloth, it was not uncommon for gifts to arrive unexpectedly. Mostly they were casseroles and holiday pies from the local Women of Grace chapter and sometimes a grass cutting by one of their sons. But power washing? It was the chore that confused me, not the man offering it.
I went back inside, feeling I’d accomplished something by not embarrassing myself further. Father Cepheus was clattering through the kitchen. He already had breakfast, a couple of bananas and yogurt, the remains of which, peels and empty America’s Choice yogurt cup, were left centrally on the kitchen table. And now he was itching for breakfast again because he didn’t remember the first one. Cepheus was holding a carton of eggs he had extracted from the refrigerator. I was curious to see what he was going to do with these. There were several precedents. Once, he just cracked one open over a slice of rye bread, splashed it with mustard and made a sandwich. Most of the egg spilled onto the counter before it reached his mouth. On another occasion, he placed two unbroken in a pot and fired up the burner; no water, no nothing, just two eggs in a pot.
Cepheus had taught biology, actually the last of us to teach, still going strong years after I ceased trying to excite hormone-inflamed youths about the Teapot Dome Scandal. He was a squat barrel chested man with a Marine buzz cut who wrestled in college. He was also an all-star intellect with a PhD in cellular biology from Johns Hopkins, who had coached multiple young men to the finals of the International BioGENEius Challenge. Salerno had taught math, mostly geometry, and Father Solomon French. Solomon still tutored although he needed help to get down from his bedroom to the parlor where he met his students. They were mainly the kids and a few grandkids of young men Solomon taught in the classroom. Solomon was from Jamaica and spoke French with an island inflection. The music of it seemed to have a hypnotic and indelible effect on listeners and kept Solomon in the game. It was likely that the few sessions a week empowered him past the osteoarthritis that turned every trip from floor to floor into an Olympic field event. Each day one of us would help him settle into the comfortable chair near his third floor window that looks out on the harbor and Storm King Mountain. There he read Mark Twain and Dostoyevsky and the Times, pecked out French quatrains ala Apollinaire on his laptop and snapped photos of the mountain’s changing façade.
I walked up cautiously beside Cepheus.
“You know, Father, I was just thinking about eggs,” I said.
Cepheus looked at me as if I had just tossed ice water onto his face. I was ready for this and had my hands positioned to grab the egg carton before it slipped to the floor. His shoulders jerked and I was also prepared to duck. But this time he did not swing.
I suggested we collaborate on an egg salad for lunch. His eyes cast about, skimming over me, the four peeling chairs pushed against the round kitchen table, other parts of the room where the bright red devil that plagued him might be hiding. I always feared that this image that came to me was an injustice to the sybaritic imp in Joni Mitchell’s sublime idyll. But Cepheus was born in Matala, and once I had made the connection, it couldn’t be unstuck.
I put six eggs in a pot, covered them with water, and took them to the stove.
“Steve,” I said, “please go into the basement and get the new jar of pickles.”
He looked at me sharply. We were all pre-Vatican II and mainly stuck to the traditional appellations. But with Cepheus traditions held no meaning, most of the time anyway. Hearing his given name sometimes had a restorative effect, on his posture in any event. Did it remind him of his mother’s voice, telling tell him to sit up straight or take out the garbage in Pittsburg as the Third Reich crumbled? Was that more immediate to him than a lifetime of Father this and Father that? I pointed to the door that opened to the basement stairs. Cepheus nodded sternly and crossed the kitchen floor. There was no telling what would occur in the basement, but he was less dangerous when he had a purpose.
I was waiting for the water to boil when Mr. Victory in Space came to the door. He said he was ready and asked that all the windows be shut.
“I was thinking I should check with the house manager,” I said, “before you begin.”
He shrugged. “How long will that take? I have other appointments.”
I invited him inside, offered a mug of coffee and trudged up to my bedroom for my cell, hoping it would be clearly in sight and that I would not have to pick up the land line and call myself, which I had to do at least once a day despite my verbal aid of pronouncing out loud where I placed it. Cell on desk. Cell on floor near bathroom sink. Cell in back pocket of pants you are wearing.
Don Giovanni, the latest stop in Solomon’s cultural odyssey, was filling his half-open doorway. It was the Zefferelli film, Terfel and Fleming. Several nights ago, I checked the DVD out of the local library and we watched it on Solomon’s computer. Beyond the liturgical requirements, I am a musical lost cause. I dozed off continually, each time waking to see Solomon leaning forward, his face ablaze with the music.
My room is neat, less a consequence of ecclesiastical discipline than two tours as a chaplain in Vietnam. It was that experience that convinced the diocese that I could be a caretaker to Father Cepheus. It’s not that the curia are opposed to institutionalization, but given Cepheus’ destructive tendencies, it was determined that he is best kept under home rule. That was the nominal explanation. Salerno latter confided that the real concern had to do with how the disintegration of a great mind would reflect on our institution. It was also somehow determined that a person who more than forty years ago spent his days in a Da Nang hospital jotting down the tortured utterances mortally wounded twenty-year-olds wished to have sent home to their families was well suited to the job of watching over someone with violent dementia.
I located my phone in a jacket pocket just as a commotion rattled through the hall. Giovanni pummeling Masetto? Sitting on my bed, I reviewed the directory with Salerno’s numbers. There were three for him, all adjacent to the same placid countenance, all infuriatingly similar. As I puzzled over which to dial, Solomon appeared in the doorway, gripping the jamb. Mozart was silent, but the house was not.
“Downstairs,” Solomon shouted at me. He insisted that I help him to the first floor despite my assurances that there was a reasonable explanation for mixture of crashes and language not typically heard in a quasi-monastic domicile. Solomon shook his head, taking a handful of my shirt as we descended.
“And you were in Indo-China.”
When we arrived at the scene, Victor was prone, trying to prop himself on an elbow in a kitchen corner. The kitchen itself was a pickle disaster, the pungent aroma thick in the air, pickle juice soaking Victor’s Nirvana tee shirt. A single miniature gherkin was embedded in his curly hair while others slid down the side of the counter to our lime green linoleum. I turned off the flame under the pot, where the water had half-evaporated around the eggs. This, my forgetfulness, frightened me more than the semi-conscious man on the floor.
Solomon and I helped Victor into a chair and pressed a bag of frozen lima beans to the pink crescent moon mounding on his temple. Neither of us needed an explanation.
“Where’s Cephus?” I asked. Victor seemed ill-prepared to reply so I turned to Solomon, whose eyes were darting between Victor and me. His hands were flat on the table, but his legs gave up and he dropped hard into a chair. It was all more than I could process. I walked out to the front porch.
Beside the pickup, Victor had set up his equipment, the hose of the power washer already connected to the spout projecting from the house foundation. There was a substantial leak geysering midway in the hose. Wasted water trips something primal in me and I hurried over and closed the valve.
“Father Cepheus,” I called somewhat in the voice I employed for sermons on the occasional Sundays I was asked to say mass at Our Lady of Loretto. I was typically a last resort when no one else was available during the summer, but it was summer and no requests had arrived. Boxwood bushes were bunched together along one side of the house, and I looked behind them for Cepheus as I might look a lost gardening tool. In the rear I lifted the garage door. The garage housed a twenty-year old Crown Vic waiting for new shocks. The Crown Vic was unoccupied. I opened the door anyway and stared inside for a while before taking the path along the other side of the house to the sidewalk. Our neighbor Jim was heading toward the bus stop with a shoulder bag and a travel mug. I tried to catch up, so I could ask if he had seen Cepheus. Despite my exertions, his form diminished as he neared the county road. My cell hummed.
“Where are you?” said Salerno.
“I’m outside, looking for Cepheus.”
“He’s was in the basement. Get back there. The police are on the way.”
“He attacked a man. It ends here.”
In the time it had taken me to walk a single long block and back, two police cruisers and an ambulance had parked in front of our house. All these vehicles were unoccupied, which meant all the personnel they were carrying were inside. I wanted to call back Salerno immediately and ask him if he had any mental images about how Cepheus would react to such an invasion. But this is where the priestly training kicks in and compels me to consider how Salerno was trying to deal with a serious emergency while in North Philadelphia trying to talk his ally cat of a sister into letting a health care worker come to her home in the mornings and make sure she can take a shower with low potential for catastrophe. That, I was taught so long ago, is how one is supposed to manage anger, by forcing oneself into the mind of the other to choke back one’s own choler. This is precisely what I was doing, but it was occurring in Cepheus’ mind, which typically sent me down the gloriously expressionist, wholly imbalanced strassen of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
In fact the scene I encountered inside was cinematic in the fashion of police procedurals, with the perp, Cepheus, flat on his face on the kitchen floor, his wrists bound with nylon handcuffs in the small of his back, and one officer’s hand clamped on his neck to constrain movement. An EMT had squatted down in front of Victor and was waving a penlight in front of his pupils. Two other officers were taking notes from Solomon, and still another was talking copspeak into a radio, and appeared to be in charge.
“That man is a priest and seventy five years old,” I said approaching Cepheus. A hand placed squarely in the center of center of my chest aborted my progress. In fact, I had no doubt that it was best to restrain Cepheus. But the sight of him trussed on the floor was visual confirmation of what Salerno had said. It was over, something was over, maybe everything was over. Cepheus’ face was fixed in a silent scream.
“And he has dementia,” I added.
I identified myself and asked if I could just sit beside him. The officer on the radio, who had a distinctly asymmetrical mustache, nodded.
“It’s alright, Steve,” I said, lowering myself to one knee. “It’s over now.” I said it again and again until he finally seemed to hear me and the rictus softened and he closed his eyes.
Salerno got back on the line and persuaded the police that Cepheus needed to be taken to a hospital. After tending to Victor, the EMTs secured Cepheus to a gurney and rolled him outside. A small crowd of onlookers had gathered, including Jim’s wife, Avon, whose very long and striking red hair seemed to glow even brighter near the flashing lights of the cruisers. The news would spread, perhaps even to the media – Lunatic Priest Overpowers Power Washer. My cell hummed again.
“Is he still there?” said Salerno.
“The power wash guy.”
“His name is Victor.”
“Is Victor still there?”
Victor was, standing by his truck, looking uncertain as an officer spoke. I could hear the officer urging him to go to the hospital, and Victor was slowly explaining that he couldn’t leave his equipment.
“Should I apologize?”
“Probably best to say nothing. I’ll be on the next train.”
The ambulance left followed by one cruiser and then the second. Inside, Solomon sat at the table looking at his European loafers. I began to clean the pickle remnants.
“What now?” he said, slowly rising. I moved to assist. He lifted his hand to keep me at a distance and shuffled out of the kitchen. I swept up the remnants of glass, put water and ammonia into a bucket and started mopping. A boom rocked the kitchen wall and a sheet of water covered the window above the sink and then progressed laterally in a drum roll along the outside wall of the house. I hurried out the door, turned off the water again, and followed the hose to the side of the house where Victor held the wand from which water fell in droplets.
“What are you doing?” I said.
“I was paid to power wash your house,” he slurred.
“Given the circumstance, I would say you get a pass. At least today.”
“Oh, that you just got knocked unconscious.”
Victor scrunched up his eyebrows.
“Is it very windy today?” he asked.
“Yes, it’s gusty,” I said, even though it wasn’t.
“Not good for house washing.”
He reeled his hose into the bed of the pickup and then braced himself with both hands on the tailgate. It took some persuading, but I got him to come back inside, where I sat him at the table again and brewed a cup of black tea. Victor gazed into the dark liquid then lowered his head into his arms.
“I just need a minute.”
“Sit up,” I said. “You shouldn’t fall asleep.”
He cast himself backward in the chair, his arms wide.
“Jesus Christ,” he said softly, then managed a weak grin.
“I should get the ambulance back here.”
His waved this away.
“What’s wrong with him? Alzheimer’s?”
“That’s part of it probably. But there’s more. It’s called mixed dementia. His symptoms are inconsistent. Physically he hasn’t declined.”
“I can see that.” With his fingertips he scanned the bruise on his temple, now purple and closer to a half moon.
“I am deeply sorry,” I said, remembering Salerno’s advice too late. But since it was out, I decided to dig myself deeper. “I probably shouldn’t say this, but you would be in your rights to pursue this.”
“What do you mean?”
“To press charges,” I said. “If you wanted to.”
Victor considered me. “You’re a priest?”
“I won’t be pursuing this,” he said.
“No. Would you like to know why?”
After multiple additional phone exchanges with Salerno, who was sitting in the waiting area of the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, obsessing unpleasantly, he later confessed, on the restroom murder scene from Witness, it was agreed that I would take a cab to the hospital and wait until he arrived. I informed Solomon, who insisted on accompanying me. This involved unfolding Solomon’s walker and taking along his tachycardia medication. It would have been a good time for the Crown Vic to be operational. Salerno sent a letter to the diocese which included a table showing how our transportation expenses, mainly buses and cabs, had quadrupled the estimated cost of new shocks. There was no response. Over wine one evening we concocted an appeal to Pope Francis, who, we conceded, would come out on the side of public transportation.
We found Cepheus in bed under a restraining net in a private room in the psychiatric ward on the hospital’s top floor. He was awake but so immobilized by sedatives he could have been taken for dead, except for the faint, phlegmy breaths struggling to be free of his throat. Solomon sat close, placed his stole across Cepheus’s chest and closed his eyes in silent prayer. I reached for Cepheus’s hand under the net, but could not bring myself to join in. It was a familiar tableau, although in Nam I had forced out the words, and sometimes believed in them, in their power. I wondered if Cepheus’s still prayed. When the four of us gathered in the mornings and evenings for a group recitation of the liturgy before the modest altar we constructed in our finished basement, he would join us. Even though words eluded him, he was uncommonly still, and this, we all enthusiastically agreed, was Cepheus’s way of remaining a priest. Under the indifferent walls and window of modern medical care that made no attempt to deceive or distract us about where we were and where we were heading, I hoped that in the deepest parts of his mind, Cepheus was reliving his expertise in the lab at John Hopkins or walking the shore of Lake Pontchartrain where he attended St. Joseph’s Seminary. In fact, I wondered constantly what was going on in Cepheus’ mind.
In time a nurse strode in and took Cepheus’s blood pressure. He hadn’t stirred in the least.
“What did you give him?” said Solomon.
“He was quite agitated when he arrived,” the nurse said, looking at the chart. She wrote down the reading and left.
“So much for your Gallic charm,” I said.
“Seulement en français.”
Hours later we heard Salerno’s voice in the hall. With him was Regina, the secretary from the diocese office. Regina drove a purple Prius, and Salerno said she would take Solomon and me home and he would stay.
“I’ll stay too,” I said.
Salerno was a wiry man, his head full of short hair almost entirely ungrayed. Another former athlete, he was told to coach varsity basketball and then, based perhaps on the team’s winning records, to be principal of the high school. Whether he wanted these assignments or even if he was qualified was irrelevant. Salerno distributed himself in the chair at unnatural angles, a human zigzag. Either the day had caught up with him or I was hallucinating. As principal, he had supported Cepheus for a time, but then advocated for full retirement as the outbursts reoccurred. The diocese opted for a one-week “evaluation” at St. Luke’s in Silver Springs. Cepheus returned coherent and serene, lulling Salerno with false hope.
“Did he say anything about what happened?”
“No, our brethren here.”
Cepheus still talked, but infrequently and then typically about foot-long caterpillars he was certain were consuming the insides of the walls in his bedroom. He would grab my forearm and take me inside.
“Hear them?” he said.
I moved my head closer.
“I think so.”
He looked at me with approval and said it was time for an exterminator, although it came out as “experimenter.”
The next day, Regina ferried us back to the hospital absent Solomon, who clung to his window view, anticipating it being ripped from his life. Cepheus was sitting up in the bed, though still restrained, his wrists bandaged under heavy straps. There was a yellow glaze of sweat on his forehead though the room was arctic. I took a towel from the toilet and wiped away the glaze, which reformed almost instantaneously. Salerno stationed his face inches from Cepheus’s and asked a couple of pro forma questions. Cepheus’s eyes shifted a bit and his lips trembled but no sound emerged. A doctor arrived and talked with Salerno about changing the meds. Salerno listened carefully, not bothering to say that he had already arranged that morning to ship Cepheus to Maryland. The diocese agreed to an air ambulance out of Stewart. The cost was frightening. But having decided that Cepheus should go, they wanted him gone quickly. The next day, when the three of us sat down to our evening meal, Cepheus was two-hundred fifty miles south, securely at the front end of permanent incarceration.
That evening Solomon dialed up Bergman’s Trollflöjten on YouTube. This time I was kept awake, less by the performance than by a nagging question.
After the finale, I asked Solomon, “Have you ever been unsure if you were hearing a confession?”
“But it doesn’t matter, right?”
“That is correct, Father,” he said suspiciously.
To reassure him, I added, “It doesn’t matter because if there is any possibility that it is a confession, it must be sanctified.”
Solomon nodded slowly.
“Alright, just take this abstract example.”
But Solomon stopped me. “I know what you are doing, Father, and I won’t be part of it.”
I went downstairs to see if Salerno would listen or also keep me from abandoning my vow of silence. But Salerno was on the phone, as he had been most of the day, futilely proposing alternatives to the dissolution of our communal home.
Outside I sat on the top step of the porch remembering Victor speaking to the officer, the image of it seared into my mind along with all the other images of the previous day. What did it matter, anyway? The truth? Cepheus was where he should be, where he should have been for a long time.
It didn’t matter that Victor of Victory in Space was Victor Suarez, the father of Mark Suarez, the last student victim of Cepheus’ unaccountable rage. The attacks occurred over several years. The initial assaults for minor slights were mainly blows to the back and shoulders. The next incident was almost a year after the first psych evaluation. It involved a cafeteria worker who Cepheus believed was spitting into the soup pots. Cepheus marched into the kitchen, flung the man to the floor and was poised to pounce before the head cook intervened. A settlement ensued and then a second evaluation. Once again, the diocese refused to recognize that they could be wrong, and Cepheus was back at work commenting brilliantly on videos of mesencephalon development.
And then, finally, there was poor Mark Suarez, and the trail turned red. Cepheus claimed Mark was shouting profanities about the Virgin Mary although not a single student in the honors bio class could confirm this. Cepheus demanded that Mark stop – also unverified – and, when this did not occur, drove his knuckles straight into Mark’s nose, causing multiple fractures and the attendant blood gush. Cepheus was actually arrested, but the diocese machinery went to work on Victor, who declined to either press charges or sue provided Cepheus never taught again and certain monetary arrangements were made.
Victor used the settlement to place a downpayment for a house in Beacon, and Cepheus, assigned now to three elderly caretakers, tumbled headfirst into madness. And there it seemed to rest.
The diocese suppressed information about the assault on Mark, and since I was already long offsite, the story reached me only in the vaguest outline. It was also possible that I just excised the memory of what occurred years before. Tales about Cepheus abounded, too many to be true. But Victor I believed.
Gazing into the teacup, Victor filled in the left-over details about his son. Even with Cepheus ejected, Mark began to dread going to school. Illnesses, maybe phantom, kept him home with regularity. Eventually, Victor and his wife transferred Mark to another school where he fared a little better, but he was still declining physically. Therapy became a constant in their lives.
“But he has a job now?” I said.
Victor finally took a long swallow of my tea. His face compressed so hard that the tendons in his neck bulged.
“Yes, he does,” he rasped, “and he still lives at home.”
“What about the free power wash?” I asked.
“Legitimate. One of your neighbors called and said your house was filthy and depressing his home value. But he didn’t want to insult you. So we agreed on the story about a gift from an old student.”
Victor said he had entered the kitchen to wait on the okay from Salerno and there was Cepheus.
“This is something I had dreamed about,” he said.
“What did you dream?”
“To show him what it feels like.”
“I said a few things and then I went after him. But I don’t think I actually made any contact.
The next thing I saw was you and the African looking down at me. ”
“He’s from Jamaica.”
Victor rose from the chair with extreme deliberation as if one bad move would result in total structural collapse. Once upright, he said, “So now it’s crazy priest two and team Suarez zero.” He paused at the kitchen door, framed by the morning light passing through the glass upper half.
“There’s one thing I remember him saying before I started swinging,” he said.
“He said, ‘Here’s the pickles.’”
About the Author: In his day job, Bill Schillaci is a freelance environmental journalist. At night, he writes short fiction, which has been published this year in Printers Row and 34th Parallel Magazine. On the weekends, he is an amateur cabinetmaker and claims to have built most of the furniture in his home in Ridgewood, New Jersey. He is also a former resident of Oakland and is delighted to reconnect with the Bay Area through The East Bay Review.